Reviewed today: Ballerina Who Loves B-Boyz, The Container, A Couple Of Blaguards, Follow Me, Impressing The Czar, Johnson & Boswell: Late But Live, Luke Wright, Scotch Malt Whisky Society, Spank!, Spin Odyssey, Stardust.
"Men! You can't live with them, you can't kill them. At least, I wouldn't recommend it." Ladies and gentlemen, the comedy stylings of Miss Ruth Ellis there. Ellis was hanged in 1955 for the murder of her lover David Blakely, and Follow Me tells her story from two viewpoints. In her cell on the last day of her life, Ellis (Beth Fitzgerald) goes over the events that led up to the murder, and ponders the fame she subsequently achieved as a young, pretty woman who'd been sentenced to death. Little does she know that due to public outcry, she'll eventually become famous as the last woman hanged in England. Meanwhile, nearby, the hangman Albert Pierrepoint (Ross Gurney-Randall) talks to his new assistants about the job they'll be expected to undertake, and his own personal history as the most prolific killer to ever exist legally in this country. The two of them will never meet, until the moment where Pierrepoint enters Ellis' cell and tells her "follow me."
Directed by the ultra-prolific Guy Masterson (on the way out we're handed a telephone directory-sized flyer for his other productions here this year), Follow Me is basically two intercut monologues, written by different people, which only intersect in the play's final scene. It makes it very much a show of two halves, where even the weaker of the two halves is very good indeed. Ruth Ellis' story (written by Dave Mounfield) is sensitively told and well handled, with Beth Fitzgerald carefully capturing the mood swings Ellis goes through on her way to acceptance of the noose. It's a story that's been told many times before: in the movies alone, both Diana Dors and Miranda Richardson have portrayed her memorably, and Fitzgerald holds her own in that company. But that's part of the problem with her scenes: it's a story we've heard before, and it's a little familiar as a result.
Pierrepoint's tale, on the other hand, is less familiar. (Yes, there was a film about him recently, but don't make me explain the concept of 'Spallness' to you again.) Ross Gurney-Randall's writing and performance of the role turn Follow Me into something very special indeed. I've always had a curious fondness for stories about people who are very good at their job, and Gurney-Randall portrays Pierrepoint as a pure professional. He appreciates the dark humour behind what he does for a living, but takes pride in the way he does it to the best of his ability, seeing it as his duty to make the client suffer as little as possible. He wants this particular execution to be no different from the others, and becomes angry when various circumstances conspire to make it particularly memorable. And when the final scene we've been set up for turns out to go counter to expectations, it has a surprising emotional impact. Follow Me is a little gem: you may think that the subject matter is rather ghoulish, but it's merely the framework for an excellent study of two human beings under pressure.
When you're telling people that you're off to the Fringe for a week, it's good to have a production up your sleeve that'll help you sum up the wildness you're going to encounter. For me, The Container has filled that role this year. Its premise is both simple and topical: it follows the adventures of five refugees from various countries, who have come together to travel to England illegally. An agent has arranged for them to be smuggled into the country in a shipping container: a claustrophobic environment in which arguments between the five can quickly reach boiling point. So far, so straightforward: but throw the words 'site-specific' into the mix, and you'll see what makes The Container special. Because it's actually performed inside a shipping container, parked just outside the Speigelgarden: an audience of twenty is locked inside the container with the cast, and we're forced to experience that claustrophobia with them.
It may sound gimmicky (which is why this is the one production at this year's Festival so far where The Belated Birthday Girl has declined to join me), but importantly Clare Bayley has remembered to write a play rather than simply work with an environment for an hour. She takes five characters from different countries and backgrounds, and shows the various reasons why each of them has chosen to abandon their home and start a new life elsewhere, even it involves great personal risk. Director Tom Wright gets fine performances from them all - he has to, given that some of them are acting just inches away from the audience. This would be intense enough on a stage, but the container setting ramps up the intensity level dramatically - the mysterious noises coming from outside, the only lighting coming from the torches carried by the cast, the sheer proximity of the actors themselves. The Container has obviously been selling out every day because of the limited size of its audience, but it's also selling out because it's one of those only-in-Edinburgh type experiences. (Unless they take it on tour, of course.)
Poetry next, with Luke Wright: Poet And Man, first mentioned here when he appeared on Mervyn Stutter a couple of days ago. The short extract he performed then is indicative of the structure of the show, an eight-part analysis of what it means to be a man. Each of the eight parts has a similar structure: a short quote from one of Wright's favourite writers (ranging from Evelyn Waugh to Alex Turner), a short discussion of a related incident in his life, and then a poem related to the topic in hand. Which means that if you're coming to this show specifically for poetry, you're only going to get eight actual poems in the hour, plus a lot of linking material. This isn't a problem, as the linking material is incredibly engaging, like Wright himself. He's well aware of the irony of taking on the topic of manhood when he's a boyish-looking 25-year-old ("I've still got my milk face"), but he's wryly funny with it, getting in more and better gags than some of the stand-ups we've seen here this week. And the poems themselves, when they eventually come, are excellent: quirky metres, unexpected rhymes, and raw emotion where you least expect it.
Today's big movie is Stardust, and thanks to our insider at the EIFF we know in advance that there will be absolutely nobody from the film in attendance. (Even though Edinburgh is the UK premiere, apparently the distributors are holding all the talent back so they can show up at the London screening instead.) No problem: we've still got two more events to get to after this one, so the quicker we get out the better. Besides, the film is good enough to stand up on its own merits without personal appearances from the cast and crew. Based on Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess' graphic novel, it tells the story of Tristan (Charlie Cox), an inhabitant of the English walled village of, er, Wall. In order to impress a girl, Tristan has vowed to track down a fallen star and bring it back for her, and has to go through the wall to the magical kingdom of Stormhold to find it. But he's not the only one trying to find the star: a group of princes are searching for it to claim succession to the throne, while the witch Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer) wants to use it to regain her youth and power. As an added complication, once the star has fallen to earth, it's taken the form of Claire Danes.
The tone of Neil Gaiman's writing is always a tricky thing to pin down: huge mythical panoramas inhabited by fantastic creatures, every so often brought down to earth by them all having the same mundane problems that we do. Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn's adaptation of the book manages to combine all these elements and bring that tone beautifully to the screen (although having Mrs Jonathan Ross as a writer does make you wonder how the review on Film 2007 will work). The result is a fantasy adventure unlike any other, although the comparisons made by others to The Princess Bride do make a lot of sense: both films combine the fantastic and the comic seamlessly, and both films have had to make do with cult success rather than commercial acclaim, as nobody knows how to market them properly. Loads of your favourite British comic actors, plus Ricky Gervais, all give entertaining cameos: and Vaughn directs the whole thing with the verve and pace it needs to stop you picking holes in the story.
Johnson And Boswell: Late But Live has already been reviewed in these pages: Eve saw it earlier in the week, and didn't enjoy it much. I had my suspicions at the time about what the problem could be, and now I've seen the show I can confirm my suspicions are correct. Basically, if you go to Johnson And Boswell expecting to see a show about Johnson and Boswell, you probably won't enjoy it at all. The crucial difference between us and Eve is that we didn't go expecting such a show: we saw the names of Stewart Lee as the 'deviser' and Simon Munnery and Miles Jupp in the cast, and assumed it would be an hour of theatre using the characters of Johnson and Boswell as the framework for something incredibly silly. And that's what we get.
If nothing else, it's a terrific bit of fun for an English audience. After the shortbread-tin cliches of the pipes and drums opening, the show finds its feet when Johnson (Simon Munnery) comes onto the stage and spends ten minutes rudely slagging off the Scots to their faces, in an extension of Lee's stand-up routine from a couple of years ago where he proved William Wallace was gay just to annoy an Edinburgh audience. There are also several splendid jokes at the expense of the typical Traverse audience, as well as Fringegoers as a whole: the punchline "are you not familiar with the work being performed at Aurora Nova?" will probably have me giggling for the next few days. But aside from the rather funny provocation, there are still a couple of references to the writers' original texts, mainly pointing up how Boswell (Miles Jupp) differs from Johnson's own accounts of his previous trip to Scotland. The final overload of Scottish cliches at the climax is elevated to new heights at this performance by the reaction of a guide dog in the front row to the appearance on stage of a freshly-cooked haggis. It's all very daft, and a little self-indulgent towards the end, but makes for a fun night if you take it in the spirit in which it's intended.
The title Late But Live is, of course, a reference to the tradition of late-night cabaret shows at the Fringe, where both comedians and audiences gather after normal pub closing time to let off steam. According to John Bishop at Sunday's Mervyn Stutter, Late 'N' Live has descended once more into the sort of bearpit where comics can be literally bottled off if the audience takes against them: meanwhile, The Stand has been quietly putting on late-night shows aimed specifically at comedy fans rather than drunks. A few years ago, the Underbelly started putting on a late-night show of its own: one that has been acclaimed as bringing back the spirit of the old Late 'N' Live without the risk of injury from flying objects. That late night show is called Spank! How could I have avoided it all this time?
In fact, on the night that nine of us attend our first Spank!, it turns out to be a rather unusual show. Phil Nichol's Comedians Theatre Company has been getting rather good notices this month with their straight production of the Boer War drama Breaker Morant, featuring a cast of comedians primarily from Australia and Britain. Tonight's show - retitled Spanker Morant for the evening - features stand-up from all of the play's cast members, including big names like Adam Hills, Nick Wilty and Nichol himself (but not Brendon Burns, who fails to show up for mysterious reasons). Initially it looks like a great comedy bill, but in fact it's something slightly more self-indulgent than that: as Hills eventually admits, this is really just an excuse for the cast to go out, get drunk and have fun.
So it's a cast party, but one to which we've all been invited. As a result, even the duff bits turn out to be fun: in particular, one of the acts (name omitted due to drunkenness on my part) is allowed to die appallingly on stage for five minutes until it's revealed he's one of the few non-comedians in the play just winding us all up with his non-jokes. As well as much better stand-up from the likes of Wilty and Hills, there are novelty acts (including Spank! co-host James doing an entertaining mime to the theme from Black Beauty), and music from Phil Nichol (including a mass singalong to his I'm The Only Gay Eskimo). Self-indulgent highlight of the night has to be Brokeback Morant, in which the cast reworks key scenes from Breaker Morant as gay porn. Which is going to make it bloody weird when we go to see the play on Saturday, I'd imagine.
All of this is held together by hosts James and Leon, who treat the whole thing as one enormous party - getting some audience dancing started within the first two minutes, giving every act their own theme tune, and generally keeping the whole show bubbling over. The dancing proper starts at 3am, which is the cue for us old people to sneak out and try to get half an hour's sleep in preparation for the next day.
Notes From Spank's Pals
Lesley - The Royal Ballet of Flanders' complete performance of Impressing The Czar, a work by William Forsythe, one of the foremost contemporary choreographers. Sorry - but you've missed it. Fucking weird and bloody brilliant. The middle section In The Middle, Somewhat Elevated is already known to UK audiences. I'm sure we'll soon see the work in its entirety again. I loved the last bit: the whole company ALL dressed as schoolgirls in black pumps, white knee highs, black pleated skirts, white blouses, black shoelace ties and light brown long bob wigs - running round and round, backwards and forwards, with suggestions of a classical corps. Superb.
Old Lag - And so to the headquarters of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society in up and coming dockside Leith for a whisky tasting evening. The building is an old warehouse. There were many bonded whisky warehouses in the area according to the cab driver. I don't know the history of the organisation, but the society is owned by a whisky distiller with venues around the world. It does, though, have access to the output of many, many distilleries. The whiskies obtained for and sold to members are single malts (unblended) from a single cask. The whiskies are known by number, as the distilleries do not want them sold under their name.
The evening took the form of a talk about how Scotch whisky is made. A discussion of how to taste whisky, and why. A discussion of the qualities of four widely differing whiskies, and then questions. After that, tasting whiskies in the wooden panelled members' room. A very enjoyable start to the evening.
Lesley - Spin Odyssey is the first of the two Korean hip hop/breakdance shows I have caught so far. This group were - I have been told - winners in some international competition which generated a film. In the flesh the youths were fine movers, stitching their skills into a rather fey tale of Ancient Greek warriors caught in a time travel vortex to find a magic ball in our modern world, Asian style. It worked for me.
Old Lag - A Couple Of Blaguards is the tale of two Irish boys brought up in the slums of Limerick in the middle of the last century. The two actors play all the parts. Life revolves around the house, the family school and the Catholic church. As such, Catholics brought up in its older harsher traditions may be more able to empathise with the play. The local characters are the priest, the politician, the brother teachers and the grandmother. The poignant moments are the death of the younger children and the absent father.
Ending school, they realise they have no education and no prospects of work with perennial unemployment. The result, as for many previous generations, is emigration to the USA. Here, though, are the problems of unskilled work, and to join or not to join the existing Irish community.
Their adventures and growth fill the remains of the play. A pleasant and well-crafted tale with a few songs to speed things along.
Lesley - Fun and exuberant as Spin Odyssey was, I'm afraid that they were out danced by the bravado of The Ballerina Who Loves B-Boyz, another oddball tale. 3 young ballet dancers were disturbed in their graceful exercises by a gang of street kids hanging around outside their studio. Despite the rough mockery of the breakdancing tribe, one of the girls is lured into joining them. A blast, and I believe they're coming to London.